American Indian Literature and Cultures

Week Four Slides

Reading Art and Material Culture Holistically


"Objective"  LEFT:  Hall of the         1. What is my first response to the work?         
California Indian Ethnology at the      (Later you may modify or even reject this         
Field Museum (1907) RIGHT:  Puberty     response, but begin by trying to study it.) 2.    
basket Made by Mrs. Sam Hughes, Pomo    Where and when was the work made?  Does it        
DEFINITION:  MATERIAL CULTURE Leland    reveal qualities that the critical articles       
Ferguson argues that material culture   attribute to the culture?  (Don't assume that     
includes all "the things that people    it does;  works of art have a way of eluding      
leave behind....all of the things       easy generalizations.) 3. Where would the work    
people make from the physical           originally have been seen?  (Surely not in a      
world--farm tools, ceramics, houses,    museum or textbook.) 4. What purpose did the      
furniture, toys, buttons, roads,        work serve?  To glorify a god?  To immortalize    
cities." (Thomas Schlereth. Material    a man?  To teach?  To delight?  Does the work     
Culture Studies in America.             present a likeness, or express a feeling, or      
Nashville: American Association for     illustrate a mystery? 5. In what condition has    
State and Local History, 1982:  2)      the work survived?  Is it exactly as it left      
WHY STUDY MATERIAL CULTURE? Through     the artist's hands, or has it been damaged,       
Material culture (the study of          repaired, or in some way altered?  What           
artifacts) we can learn about the       evidence of change do I see? 6. What is the       
"belief systems--the values, ideas,     title?  Does it help illuminate the work?         
attitudes, and assumptions--of a        Sometimes it is useful to ask yourself, what      
particular community or society,        would I call the work?   (Sylvan Barnet, A        
usually across time. As a study,        Short Guide to Writing About Art .  Boston:       
[material culture] based on the    Little, Brown, & Co.: 21-22.)  QUESTIONS OFTEN    
obvious premise that the existence of   ASKED ABOUT POMO BASKETS: 1. What kinds of        
a man-made object is concrete           designs were used in twined basketry as opposed   
evidence of presence of a human mind    to coiled basketry? 2. Are consistent designs     
operating at the time of fabrication.   found in feather basketry?  In the miniatures?    
The common assumption underlying        (Greg Sarris, "A Culture under Glass:  The Pomo   
material culture research is that       Basket" Keeping Slug Woman Alive :  53)           
objects made or modified by humans,                                                       
consciously or unconsciously,                                                             
directly or indirectly, reflect the                                                       
belief patterns of individuals who                                                        
made, commissioned, purchased, or                                                         
used them, and, by extension, the                                                         
belief patterns of the larger society                                                     
of which they are a part" (Schlereth                                                      
A HOLISTIC APPROACH: "Participatory"    QUESTIONS ONE MIGHT ASK:   1. What happened and   
LEFT:  Joe Foley with His Collection      continues to happen that allows one group of    
from Red Rock (1903 expedition             people to discuss the artifacts of another     
report) RIGHT:  Stuart Culin Dressed      people separate from the people themselves?     
as a Navajo and Father Michael          (Greg Sarris, "A Culture Under Glass:  The Pomo   
Dumarest (1903 expedition report         Basket" Keeping Slug Woman Alive :  53) 2. Why   
Field Museum)   LEFT:  Susan Billy       am I a looking at this work of art?  What do I   
with Elsie Allen RIGHT :  Collage of        hope to gain from my study?  What other       
Baskets and Basketmaking (upper left     questions does the basket ask of me? (see back   
Mary Benson Pomo)                          of this sheet) 3. How does this change the     
                                          questions we ask about baskets, people, and     



A. Read the poem aloud without stopping. If you don't know a word, circle it but keep going.

B. Paraphrase the poem. I usually do this next to each stanza in the margins to make sure I am noticing how the argument builds. At the end summarize what the overall argument or message was. What is the poet trying to convince you is true or worth believing?

C. Look up any unknown words in the OED (The Oxford English Dictionary). The OED will let you know if the word had different (or multiple) connotations during that era. If you are unsure of a word or it seems to be used in an odd way, look it up, too. For American Indian poetry circle any cultural or mythological references that you don't know. Look in the index of a history or anthropological study of that tribe to determine its meaning.

D. Diction: characterize the type of language. How does it relate to the argument?

E. Speaker: who is speaking and to whom? Characterize the speaker.

F. Figures of Speech: put a * or mark by figures of speech (e.g. metaphors, simile). Spend time listing the associations of the things being compared. What do we learn from the comparison?

G. Form, Meter, and Stanza Structure: is there a standard number of lines or rhymes being used? I will give you a cheat sheet to forms next week. Once you have determined the form, you may want to look it up in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics in order to learn about its associations. (See the handout for Week 5 for the associations of the blues.)


A Poem for Practice:



Archaic Torso of Apollo Rainer Maria Rilke


We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,


gleams in all its power. Otherwise

the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could

a smile run through the placid hips and thighs

to that dark center where procreation flared.


Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders

and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:


would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.



Alternate ending: "nothing can stop the radiance of all poems from nearly burning us to death" (Mitchell 304).



Rainer Maria Rilke, "Archaic Torso of Apollo," The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. & tr. by Stephen Mitchell. (NY: Vintage Books, 1989), p. 61.